The new Dell XPS 11 hybrid shows that Dell is still capable of swinging for the fences, and putting out a laptop that looks and feels like a true premium product. The XPS 11 is an 11-inch superslim laptop, but it's also a hybrid that converts to tablet mode. The mechanism is similar to the one found on Lenovo's popular Yoga series, with a lid that folds back 360 degrees.
Unlike the Yoga line, where the keyboard, while deactivated, is still clacking around under your fingers in tablet mode, the XPS 11 tries a different tack. In this case, the keyboard is actually almost entirely flat, with no moving parts. It's very similar to the touch keyboard option on the Microsoft Surface tablet, although in this case, the faux keys are raised a tiny bit higher.
It's an interesting concept, and one that helps the XPS 11 be even slimmer and lighter than either the Surface Pro 2 or the 11-inch Lenovo Yoga. But while the overall system design looks and feels great, the touch keyboard falls short in hands-on use. Even more so than on the Surface's touch keyboard, the lack of tactile feedback and the fact that keystrokes don't always register unless you really press down on the keys make it a hassle to be productive, which is the main selling point for using a Windows hybrid over a full-time tablet.
Starting at $1,049.99, the XPS 11 costs about the same as 13-inch Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro, and both have better-than-HD displays (2,560x1,440-pixel resolution for the XPS 11 and 3,200x1,800 for the Yoga 2 Pro). However, that $1,049.99 only gets you an Intel Core i3 CPU, plus a small 80GD solid-state drive (SSD). A Core i5 paired with a standard 128GB SSD is $1,249.99, while our review unit included a bigger 256GB SSD for $1,449.99.
Based on very positive first impressions when the system was originally announced, I was predisposed to like the XPS 11. I still think the size and design are near-perfect for an ultraportable 11-inch system, but the high price for standard components and the frustrating keyboard add up to a hybrid that's a better tablet than laptop, and at that point, one might as well just get a tablet.
|Display size/Pixel resolution||11.6-inch, 2,560x1,440 touch screen||10.6-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen||11.6-inch, 1,766x768 screen|
|PC CPU||1.5GHz Intel Core i5-4210Y||1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U||1.3GHz Intel Core i5-4250U|
|PC memory||4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz|
|Graphics||1792MB Intel HD 4200||1792MB Intel HD 4400||1,024MB Intel HD Graphics 5000|
|Storage||256GB SSD hard drive||64GB SSD hard drive||128GB SSD hard drive|
|Networking||802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8.1 (64-bit)||Windows 8.1 (64-bit)||OSX Mountain Lion 10.8.4|
Design and features
The XPS 11 is a great blueprint for how to build a small laptop. The body is made of aluminum and carbon fiber, and feels very upscale. At about 2.5 pounds, it's a hair heavier than the 11-inch MacBook Air, but still very light and easy to carry. The patterned black carbon fiber lid looks better than the dull aluminum one of the more expensive XPS 15 we recently reviewed.
The screen hinge, which folds all the way back to form a tablet (or stops in the middle for a kiosk mode) seems very similar to Lenovo's Yoga hinge, although Dell claims the hinge is a "patent-pending design" and "unique." Side by side, it seems nearly identical to the Lenovo design. In hands-on use, the Dell hinge feels little smoother when folding, but it also doesn't hold its position as tightly, which is important if you plan to use this in the kiosk or table tent mode.
The keyboard is the most innovative thing about this hybrid. It commits more to the keyboard form than the also-flat Microsoft Surface keyboard, but despite my high hopes, it was more frustrating than freeing.
I'm no stranger to feedback-free typing. In fact, I was an early proponent of onscreen iPad typing, which I became very proficient at, and I also think the onscreen keyboard in Windows 8 is generally excellent.
The issue here is twofold. First, there's absolutely zero feedback while typing, so you have to watch both your fingers and the screen very carefully to make sure you're not missing any letters. Entering passwords, with their obscured onscreen text, was especially challenging. The onscreen Windows 8 keyboard at least lights up each key as you type. It seems like a minor thing, but it makes the onscreen keyboard much more efficient than the physical one.
To be fair, there actually is one form of keyboard feedback, an annoying clicking sound with each pressed key. You'll quickly turn that off, however.
The second issue is that a touch keyboard needs to thread a very fine line between sensitivity and disregarding unintentional input, such as your finger or palm brushing against a key. Unfortunately, the keyboard sensitivity is set too conservatively, and that led to nearly every single line I typed missing one or more keystrokes. That in turn led me to tap on the keyboard harder than usual, thereby overcompensating and throwing off my typing rhythm. It's also murder on the fingers.
While I'm sure one could spend a few weeks relearning to type on the XPS 11 touch keyboard and get better (but not perfect) results, who wants to have to spend that much training time on a casual, fun, tablet-y hybrid? The bottom line: after several days of on-and-off usage, the XPS 11 keyboard was still a frustrating experience.
I tried my standard alphabet-spanning typing test, and as you can see below, I ended up with a lot of missed letters, whether I was looking at the keyboard, at the screen, or trying to keep an eye on both.
In contrast, the large clickpad-style touch pad is a generous size for such a small laptop, and felt fast and responsive, even when using multitouch gestures.
The 11.6-inch display is one of the system's main highlights. It follows the recent trend of boosting screen resolutions past 1080p, which kicked off in 2012 with the MacBook Pro with Retina Display. In this case, it has a native resolution of 2,560x1,440 pixels, which is welcome, even if it might be overkill for an 11-inch screen. This display is clear and bright, and looks good even from extreme side angles. Setting this up in its kiosk mode will allow you to share video or photos with a small group easily.
As with nearly every Windows 8 touch-screen product we've tested over the past year, touch response was fast and accurate, as was scrolling through the Windows 8 tile interface.
|Ports and connections||Dell XPS 11|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack|
|Data||2 USB 3.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|